Posted on 02 September 2011.
I am not a real statistician, I just play one on the internet. I chose my college partially because they did not require me to take any math courses. But when it comes to baseball, the numbers come alive for me, and it is fun to dig into the advanced stuff that others do and see what I can make of it. I also have zero scouting eye and have no reason to make judgments based on what I’ve seen with my eyes. But hey, I’ve watched a ton of Royals games the last few years, so I do have some opinions. Ill informed opinions are still opinions, right? With a huge grain of salt in hand, let’s dive in and see what, if anything, the numbers and my eyeballs can tell us about the defense of the 2011 Royals.
Ultimate zone rating (UZR) and defensive runs saved (DRS) both agree that the team as a whole has been totally OK. UZR has the team at -1.7 runs below average while DRS says -7 runs. That’s good for 8th (UZR) and 9th (DRS) in the AL. The team ranked either 13th or 14th in the league in both measures in 2009 and 2010, so they show fairly significant improvement. That matches what I have seen. I might rate the 2011 team as slightly above average instead of slightly below, but maybe that is a result of lowered expectations after watching terrible defensive teams the previous two seasons. Either way, the defense seems to have done no great harm nor been a major boon.
Quantifying catcher defense is so murky that UZR and DRS do not even attempt it. I like this method, which at last check in July showed Brayan Pena as +1.7 runs above average (RAA) and Matt Treanor at -1.7. To my eyes, I would expect those numbers to be reversed. Matt Treanor was a fantastic surprise this year, and I was disappointed to see him go. He seemed to actually do the things that veteran catchers get credit for all the time but I usually can not see myself. As someone said this year, he did the things Jason Kendall was supposed to do and at a fraction of the cost. Pena has seemed passable to me behind the dish, and in general has done a good job blocking the plate, but then driven fans crazy with a couple of ugly brain farts when he seemed to try to block the plate from the next zip code. As another person of forgotten identity said, the issue on those plays did not seem to be guts but a lack of mechanics and athleticism. Moving forward, the only catcher that will really matter is Sal Perez. He burst onto the major league scene by picking off two runners in his debut. Scouts cannot believe their stopwatches after clocking his throw to second. If he can avoid injury, the Royals should have a real beast behind the plate for the foreseeable future.
This is the one spot where the numbers really make you scratch your head. Every defensive metric indicates that Hosmer has been simply awful with the glove. Even those who buy fully into the newer metrics warn they are especially vulnerable to small sample size issues, so any numbers this early in Hosmer’s career are pretty worthless. It is still surprising that UZR rates him as the worst defensive 1B in the majors this year and DRS has his defense costing the team 17 runs below average. I don’t think anyone believes Hosmer has been that bad, but I will say he hasn’t looked entirely like the defensive wizard he was reputed to be. He has seemed good overall, but there have been several balls go by him I expected him to get. I imagine just a few of those dribbling past him has destroyed his range rating thanks to a small sample. It is also important to note that “scoops” are not figured into either UZR or DRS, and Hosmer has aided the team defense plenty with his digs in the dirt. As the old-timers used to say, he can really pick it. Hosmer should be a plus defender at first for years to come. I will be keeping a close eye on his defensive metrics to see if they continue to refute what most are seeing with their eyes. I expect they will start to normalize.
Just as the front office and the fan base do not seem to agree about Chris Getz‘s defense, UZR and DRS see him differently too. UZR rates him at 5.5 runs above average, good for sixth among 2nd base regulars. DRS is more in line with the fans I hear from: 1 RAA. Barely better than average. Regardless, it seemed clear to many whatever marginal advantage his glove may have brought was negated by his weak bat. The front office finally relented and replaced him as the regular with Johnny Giavotella, who, according to the organization, was the polar opposite: all bat, no glove. It is too early to come to any conclusions regarding Gio’s glove, but so far, he has looked perfectly fine to me, and made several highlight reel plays in the field. Manager Ned Yost continuing to insert Getz as a defensive replacement late in close games seems bizarre, partly because I am not sure Getz is even an improvement, but mostly because it is paramount at this point in the season to get Giavotella as much MLB experience as possible.
There were plenty concerns about Mike Moustakas‘s ability to play the field before his promotion, but so far, he has exceeded my expectations. He has an odd quirk of double clutching/not being able to grab the ball out of his glove too often, but hopefully that will decrease. UZR has him at +3 runs, DRS at -2. Either way: fine. Not an embarrassment like some were fearing. That is all he needs to do in the field. Anything more is gravy.
photo courtesy MindaHaas.net
Alcides Escobar played out of his mind defense during the first half, earning the nickname The Shortstop Jesus somewhere along the way. Ridiculous plays were the norm. He has quietly been less spectacular in the second half of the year. Not bad, just not as noticeable. The numbers back this up. Two months ago when I took a look at Escobar, he had 6.3 UZR and 10 DRS ratings, good for second in the majors in both categories among shortstops. His UZR has bumped up marginally to 7.4 since then, down to third in the league. DRS reflects a steep dropoff, knocking him all the way down to a current rating of 5 DRS, 12th best in MLB. There is no doubt Escobar is an excellent defensive shortstop, but his early season acrobatics was probably the peak of his abilities. If he falls off much from that level, and his bat remains non-existent, he will not even be an average overall player. Hopefully we will see more of the jaw-dropping Escobar than the merely good Escobar at short in the coming years.
The highlight in just about every way this season has been Alex Gordon, and defense is no exception. I would not argue with you much if you said Escobar has been the more valuable fielder, but UZR and DRS both rate Gordon’s defense as more valuable, and I’m not going to argue with that either. Alex has the best LF UZR (8.8) and fifth best LF DRS (8). As others have observed, he plays the outfield like a third baseman, closing on balls in a flash and featuring a ridiculously strong and accurate arm. He has tracked down every ball you could ask him to, and set a new franchise record with 20 outfield assists. What a year.
Melky Cabrera was in on the outfield assist spree earlier in the year, but as that has slowed down, his lack of range has emerged as more of a problem. He is a corner outfielder miscast in the center of the huge Kauffmaun Stadium outfield. UZR ranks him 18th out of 20 qualified center fielders at -9.9 runs. DRS is slightly kinder with a -6 rating. He has been the weakest link in an otherwise decent team defense. The arm seems fine, but he lacks the closing speed needed in a true center fielder. With Gordon and Jeff Francoeur sure bets to return to the corners next year, Royals brass will have to decide if they want to live with another year of Melky’s sub par defense in center or make the probable defensive upgrade by promoting Lorenzo Cain.
Jeff Francoeur is somewhat like Melky – good arm, not so good range. That combo is of course hidden better in a corner. Plus, his arm is much better than Melky’s. Frenchy leads the majors in OF assists since his career began in 2005. The arm component in UZR, which takes into account runners not challenging his arm, rates his arm at a cumulative 53.7 RAA from 2005-11. The second best arm rating in that time is less than half that total (Alex Rios, 25.9). The arm is a sight to behold, which it has to be to make up for his unimpressive range. According to UZR, his arm alone has been worth 8.7 RAA this season, but his range has come at a cost of -8.4 RAA. Almost a wash; his overall UZR comes to half a run above average. DRS likes him slightly better at 5 RAA. Both measures put him about middle of the pack overall among right fielders.
With most or all of the current position players set to return in 2012, the outlook for next year’s defense is good. At worst it should not be a liability, and could turn into a real strength.